Orphan Train: A little known piece of history - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Part 1: History, heartache and happiness aboard Orphan Train

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Orphan Train Rider, Alice Kearns Bernard, shown at age 3, shortly after her arrival in 1919. She was raised by a family in Erath. (Source: Louisiana Orphan Train Museum) Orphan Train Rider, Alice Kearns Bernard, shown at age 3, shortly after her arrival in 1919. She was raised by a family in Erath. (Source: Louisiana Orphan Train Museum)
Orphan Train Rider, Mary James Fabacher, age 2, shown with her foster father. (Source: Louisiana Orphan Train Museum) Orphan Train Rider, Mary James Fabacher, age 2, shown with her foster father. (Source: Louisiana Orphan Train Museum)
The mural at the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas. The mural at the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas.
OPELOUSAS (KPLC) -

Deep in the heart of Cajun Country, along these railroad lines, there's a heart wrenching story that's been left untold far too long.

It's a story that dates back over 100 years ago.

"My grandparents requested a little boy, about three years old with black hair and black eyes. When daddy arrived, he was a dirty blonde, he was five years old and he had blue eyes. But they kept him and they loved him," said Margaret Briley.

It's the story of the Orphan Trains. Back in the late 1800s, the streets of New York City were being overrun, literally, with thousands of homeless children, most of them children of immigrants.

With no money, food or shelter, they often turned to a life of crime on the streets just to survive.

A religious organization came up with the idea of putting them on trains and sending them across the country to families who might be willing to take them in.

And from there, the Orphan Trains began to roll. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 100,000 children were put on trains and sent all across America to 48 states, including Louisiana.

Margaret Briley's father, John Brown, was one of them.

"He doesn't remember the train ride. And he says once he got to Grand Prairie, they had people standing around the table. He was scared of animals. So, they put him in the middle of the table and he said people would just walk around and look at him and spoke French … so, I can only imagine how his heart must've been beating fast. They had to learn English ‘cause they didn't want them to speak French," Margaret said.

Flo Inhern is the historian at the Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas where the walls are adorned with the haunting images of young children who made their way to Cajun Prairie Country.

"For years, these children were not popular. They were told don't play with them, they're Yankees. No body wants them! So, there was a stigma with some of these children," Inhern said.

Bonnie Venable wasn't even born when her grandparents took in little Margaret Julien.

"A little three-and-a-half-year-old How scared can you get? Cher ba-ba," she said.

As with most of the orphans, she never was adopted. But Margaret was treated like their very own.

"She came to Opelousas and my grandmother and grandfather were waiting for her and they wanted a little girl," Bonnie said.

Grandson Rick said, "We knew about the Orphan Train. We knew that when we asked her about grandmother and grandfather, well, she didn't know who these people were. And I think that's one of the things that made her have such strong family values."

But it wasn't always easy, not knowing who you really are.

Margaret said, "Daddy always wanted to know something about his mother. That was the big question. And who am I?"

Many years later, after a lot of digging, John Brown's grandson found some of those answers, but for others, it was a deep yearning that they carried to the grave.

"But on Sundays, when they came to eat dinner at my house, when the train was coming and it would blow that whistle, he would push his plate away and go watch that train pass. So, we often wondered what his thoughts were but he never said," Margaret continued.

Tune in for Part 2 of this story tonight on Nightcast.

You can also click HERE for a webpage dedicated to the Orphan Train.

Videographer for this series was Tim Bourgeois.

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